To Help Children Develop, Help The Adults Around Them

Positive, sensible people acknowledge that when you do a job, you can never get too good at it. At the same time, employers commit to put at least as much energy as the individual in to helping them to get better at doing it. Further, the inputs aren’t just about the job, the tasks and practices, but are usually at least as much focused on the personal development of the ‘whole employee’. The sense in this is that the employee who is living a positive, healthy balanced life, capable of striving to be the best in all their personal roles will be a better employee able to make a greater contribution and work to a higher standard.

Parenting, bringing up children, enabling children’s learning – these are all jobs too, but somehow I feel much less focus is given to either the training/ learning of the skills or the overall wellbeing of those charged with this massive responsibility on behalf of society. And, it’s not an easy responsibility. Sometimes, it can be one of the most stressful ‘jobs’ in existence. Sometimes, practitioners can find themselves hampered by self-doubt, questions about whether what they’re doing is really working and stress as the ‘job’ can come to take over their lives to the exclusion of all else. There are times for both parents and educators when the phrase “work-life balance” just seems like a very bad joke.

When being a parent is combined with poverty then it might be a surprise that it’s taken so long for serious work to be done about the impact on children. This week saw a very interesting article that highlighted the benefits experienced by children when interventions focused on coaching and helping parents or foster parents to bond and handle their relationships with the children:

New York Times – Sunday review – To Help Kids Thrive, Coach Their Parents

The article highlights a number of research projects that have demonstrated the benefits in the development of children’s noncognitive skills – the skills that enable children to navigate life in school so much more effectively.The article highlights the considerable potential values that can flow out of home visits. I have, at times, been saddened when discussing with teachers when my suggestions to incorporate home visits in to building home-school teamwork, I have been told that such a move would be culturally insensitive and unwelcome in an Asian education climate.

In the latter part of the article, it takes a shift to look at aspects about how teachers are supported and enabled to be at their best, whether helping pre-kindergarten teachers with their skills and competence to prepare children effectively for the learning experience when they join a school classroom or appointing mental health professionals to work with teachers and help them to be in a ‘healthy place’ so that they can be at their best with the children. In short, reducing the stress levels of teachers reduces the stress levels of students and creates a virtuous circle that supports effective learning.

On this latter point, I also share an excellent article from Carol Ann Tomlinson in ASCD’s ‘Educational leadership’ publication about ‘Caring For Teachers’;

ASCD Educational Leadership – The Working Lives of Educators – Caring For Teachers

In the article she talks about the importance of having educational leaders who are continually engaging with the ‘why of teaching’ in their internal dialogue and who see caring for their teachers as a highly important part of maintaining a positive, nurturing learning environment. The leader is there to support teacher success. It’s through that success that children will learn most effectively. As I read the piece I found myself thinking about education leaders who put a strong emphasis on developing their own skills as coaches, listeners, in aspects of interpersonal skills and communication so that they can figure out the best way to support each of the teachers in their team.

When I was based in Delhi, around 2010/11 we introduced an annual physical health checkup for every employee. Sadly, there were a few who never took it up (including one who sadly passed away last year). However, in the first year it was somewhat startling to see how many of the check ups led to identifying potentially very dangerous health problems, or chronic ongoing issues that were preventing teachers from being or delivering their very best. Further, the message received by the teachers that we cared for their wellbeing encouraged many to change lifestyle habits that were hampering their health and their work.

Teachers do have a duty to care for themselves and each other, but as leaders we must not get so blinded by the minutiae of day to day school management, targets, KPIs etc. that we lose sight of the needs of the people through whom we seek to influence the learning experience of the children (We lead people, we manage things and processes – in that order!)

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Children With Autism and ASDs in School

I have a relative with mild Asperger’s. I’m not sure i can ever really know what that means in terms of how it changes life experiences. Over the last 10 years or so I’ve had a number of occasions when I and colleagues have needed to wrestle with complex issues about whether or not our schools could meet the education needs of a particular child either diagnosed with Autism or an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

It’s always seemed to me that when a child is diagnosed with a learning challenge like ADHD or Dyslexia and the diagnosis suggests ‘mild or mild to moderate’ the prognosis was usually good that we would be able to find the right strategies to provide the child with appropriate support so that they could function, learn and flourish in a mainstream classroom and the day to day hurly-burly of a conventional school environment. However, time after time my experience has been that our ability to meet the needs of children with Autism or ASDs remained disappointing more often than not. This raised difficult questions both about our ability to meet the needs of that child and also the price to be paid by other children.

I recently came across this fascinating insight – 5 youtube videos brought together by Mashable, in which young people with ASDs have attempted to share their experience with a wider audience, to help the rest of us to get some glimmer of understanding about how they experience the world.

Mashable – 5 Autism Simulations

For me, after watching these 5 short videos the experience was quite a disturbing one. Firstly, I felt that anyone (but especially educators) who spends any time in proximity with those with ASDs should experience these videos. It also left me with disturbing questions about whether our conventional schools, as they exist today, can ever be anything other than a place of torture and extreme stress for the person with an ASD.

The conventional school today is a place with rigid time structured activities where all children in a cohort group are to do the same thing, at the same time, in the same place in the same way. There is little scope for real flexibility. Periods of ‘suppression’ and ‘control’ are interspersed with periods when the children’s natural exuberance is allowed full and free expression – meaning they can be very noisy places.

One of the biggest changes in the modern primary classroom over the last 30-40 years is that it’s become much more colourful. There’s an automatic assumption amongst educators that this is a good thing, but after watching these videos one has to conclude it’s almost certainly a bad thing for a child with an ASD. This simply contributes to more sensory overload.

On other change we’ve seen in most Primary Schools is the teachers being more ‘tactile’ with children as part of a more sensitive, nurturing style. However, again I can see that this may not be a good thing for the child with ASD.

In the end, are we to conclude that the school today is a bad place for children living with autism, or do we take this as a wake up call to find the ways to bring changes in to the school/ classroom environment so that they can be more conducive places for such children? Is this practically possible?

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